The species within the genus Lavandula, which is in the mint family, Lamiaceae, commonly referred to as lavenders, are native to the Mediterranean region south to tropical Africa and to the southeast regions of India. The name “lavender” is derived from the Latin “lavare”, meaning “to wash”, and the association between lavender and cleansing has been carried through the millennia. Lavender flower heads were used in the waters of Roman baths, imparting both their scent, their healing and anti-bacterial properties. Fragrant lavender water was used to bathe with; while linen was often spread over lavender bushes to absorb the fragrance of lavender while drying.
Domestic and medicinal uses of lavender are documented before Roman times, as far back as the ancient Egyptians, Arabs and Greeks. The ancients were familiar with the healing properties of lavender. Its anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, insect-repellent and burn healing properties, its usefulness in relieving headaches, insomnia, anxiety and depression, as well as its value as a perfume, made lavender indispensable.
Lavender has been a favourite of royalty since ancient times. It was one of the fragrant oils sent by the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, and was also worn as a perfume by Cleopatra. Lavender is mentioned often in the Bible, not by the name lavender, but rather by the name used at that time–spikenard (from the Greek name for lavender, naardus, after the Syrian city Naarda). King Charles VI of France insisted that there be cushions stuffed with lavender wherever he went. Louis XIV, who carried sprigs of lavender in his pockets, also washed with lavender water. In England, Queen Elizabeth I demanded Lavender Conserve at every meal. Victorian England created such a demand for lavender that an industry was developed that remains today, and has spread throughout the world.
Lavender was brought to North America by the first settlers and planted in their kitchen and herb gardens; it has been a staple since. In the United States and Canada, the Shakers (a strict sect of English Quakers) were the first to grow lavender commercially as they developed herb farms upon their arrival from England. The resurgence of aromatherapy and naturopathic medicine has once again given lavender a prominent place in our daily lives.
The two species of lavender that are grown commercially, both for oil and cut or dried flowers in Southern Ontario, are Lavandula Angustifolia (English Lavender) and Lavandula X Intermedia (Hybrids derived from L. Angustifolia and L. Latifolia). These species are hardy to zones 4 -5 (click on map to see plant hardiness map)
At Prince Edward County Lavender we have a clay loam soil. With this in mind we plant on raised beds, aligned with the slope of the field to improve drainage. Lavender prefers soil that is neutral or slightly alkaline, and well drained with low to moderate nutrient availability. However, it will grow in most kinds of soil except those that are very acidic.
When selecting a location to plant your lavender, always bear in mind that lavender plants require full sun and a well-drained soil that is not too acidic. Some winter protection (i.e. hedges, trees, buildings) from the prevailing winds will help the plants survive the winter in good condition. Lavender seedlings should be watered frequently as they become established. Allow the soil to dry out between waterings and then water well. In the second year, ensure the plants do not get completely dry, but don’t water as you would most annuals. In subsequent years water only when the plant shows water stress (drooping leaves).
Lavender is a perennial shrub which, if left to its own devices, will grow leggy and tend to sprawl. The woody stems become bare and brittle, and the plant will tend to break or split in the centre. The question we are most often asked is how to avoid this from happening. Our answer is to buy smallish plants and keep them in shape right from the start. Each time you nip out a stem, it is replaced with two more. The earlier in the life of the plant that you do this the better. The branching will occur closer to the base, leading to a plant that is bushy and sturdy, rather than fragile and leggy.
With the English lavenders, L. Angustifolia and L. X Intermedia, pruning is simple. They flower in mid-summer and then you harvest the flowers for distilling or drying. In September begin pruning by removing all of the flower stalk and most of that year’s growth, leaving 3-5 nodes for the next year.
Lavender will benefit from as much winter protection as you care to give it. This can range from site selection (sheltered by hedges, trees or buildings), through a variety of mulching mediums. We use chopped wheat straw for our 1st and 2nd winters and switch to burlap, (which is the best but not cost effective for larger plantings). Do not mulch until the ground is well frozen, at which time the plant will be dormant. Applying the mulch at this time will ensure that during the inevitable mid-winter thaw the ground around the plant will not thaw.
The mulch should be removed when you have received 10-15 consecutive overnight lows above zero (typically in our area around late March to early-mid April)
Four forms of propagation are typically used for lavender:
- Seed – not recommended due to increased variability amongst the resulting plants, slow germination, and length of time to produce a viable plant
- Cutting – recommended because it retains all mother plant characteristics and will produce a viable plant within 5 – 7 weeks
- Tissue Culture – recommended for production of tens of 1000’s of identical plants, and retains all characteristics of source plant material
- Layering – long stems of lavender are bent down into the soil and held in place with a stone until they have rooted (this may take several months), at which time the rooted stem can be cut from the mother plant and replanted.
At Prince Edward County Lavender we normally use cuttings to propagate, but have on occasion used seed to try out a new variety.
McLeod, Judith A. (1998). Lavender Sweet Lavender. 5th Edition, Singapore : Kangaroo Press
Natural Resources Canada – National Atlas of Canada. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada – Canadian Soil Information System (CanSIS)
Read the article that Lee Valley had with Derek about plant maintenanceRead Now